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Petrochemicals, A Vital Industry

The petrochemical industry plays a crucial role in modern industry. It produces intermediate products derived from fossil fuels or biomass, which are then used as the building blocks for a host of everyday items. 

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Samsung Total Petrochemicals complex in Daesan, South Korea. © TOTAL

A Wide Range of Uses

Plastics, textile fibers, adhesives, detergents, cosmetics, drugs, food packaging, pipes and containers are just some of the everyday items that incorporate petrochemicals.

Petrochemicals are also vital resources for other sectors:  

  • Automotive industry: Interior components and tires.
  • Construction: Insulation materials.
  • IT and household appliances: Computer, radio and television components.
  • Health care: Precision instruments and hospital equipment.

New opportunities are also opening up for petrochemicals. At the global level, the industry is being bolstered by growing demand from Asian markets such as China and India. In the United States, soaring shale gasShale gas is found in deeply buried clayey sedimentary rock that is both the source rock and the reservoir for the gas... production is reinvigorating the outlook. The petrochemical industry is also focusing on the use of biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin... sources, a sector that is experiencing significant growth. In 2010, 700,000 tons of the 265 million tons of plastic produced were bio-sourced. This volume is forecast to reach 5 million tons in 2020.

The petrochemical industry is being bolstered by demand from emerging markets, especially China and India.

Petrochemical Feedstock

Fossil resources such as gas, coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... and oil primarily supply energy for heating and transportation. The petrochemical industry uses 10% of these resources, in the form of refined products (See Close-Up: "The Three Stages of Refining"):

Petrochemical Processes

 The petrochemical industry uses two processes to obtain intermediates:

An Industry Committed to Reducing Its Environmental Footprint

Like other industry sectors, the petrochemical industry complies with environmental safety standards such as international organization for standardization (iso)Independent, non-governmental membership organization. Its 165 members are the national standards bodies from 165 countries...  14001 and the E.U. REACH regulation. It has implemented waste incinerationTechnique used to convert waste into energy. The waste is burned, producing heat, power or both. , water treatment and safety systems to shrink its environmental impactAny change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from human activity... .

Different Types of Plastic

Ethylene and propylene can be assembled into giant molecules, or long chains of atoms strung together in different ways. These polymers are the raw material of plastic.

Commonly available as pellets, they also come in powder, paste and liquid form. They are further processed to produce different types of plastic:

(See Close-Up: "Plastics and the Environment")


IFP Energies nouvelles (in French)